Closed government? Questions hang over new Town-School consolidation plan

“Consolidation” has been the Holy Grail of elected officials in Belmont for longer than almost anyone can remember. By consolidation, we’re talking about streamlining the Town’s budget by finding efficiencies within both Town and School Dept. operations. Do we really need two separate ground crews with two separate payrolls: one to mow the lawn in front of Town Hall and the other to mow the lawn in front of the High School? You get the idea.

Various committees and subcommittees have studied both the in-town and regional consolidation question from different angles over the last two decades and produced reports on their findings. Some have borne fruit: the town has found ways to share its special education costs and fuel costs with other towns. But its also true that many of the larger-scale reform plans are collecting dust down at Town Hall. The nice thing, though, is that you can go down there (or go online) and read them. On file are also the minutes of the meetings of the committees that assembled the reports: who was involved in the discussions, what outside opinions were considered, what issues wrestled over and which compromises reached.

Not so the latest plan for consolidation of services between the School Department and Town. That plan, articulated in a  memo that was approved by the Warrant Committee last week, is the product of an informal and closed door group of the Town’s senior elected officials: the heads of the Warrant Committee, School Committee, and Board of Selectmen, which some have dubbed the “Officers’ Group.” This group has been meeting privately and is something of an open secret in Town. Since being elected to School Committee, I’ve had a number of constituents as well as fellow elected officials ask me about what it was up to, so I decided to ask.

Working through Ann Rittenburg, the Chair of the School Committee, I learned a bit more about the Officers’ Group:  it is made up of three members of  Warrant Committee: Phil Curtis, Liz Allison and Pat Brusch. Board of Selectmen Chair Dan LeClerc sits on it, in addition to the two School Committee members: Chair Ann Rittenburg and SC member Leslie Walker. The group has been holding meetings more or less weekly, though sometimes semi-weekly since September. Primarily the group has been concerned with the issue of streamlining the Town’s government and consolidating services offered by both the Town and School Department. The idea behind forming the Group was to make progress on consolidation efforts that have been taken up by numerous, public committees and subcommittees over the years, but with only meager progress on streamlining. Because the group doesn’t consider itself a government body (and, in fact, great pains are taken to make sure that there is not a quorum of any of the constituent committees at any meetings), it does not post its scheduled meeting times, take care to meet in public (and handicap accessible) locations or keep minutes of its proceedings, all as required by the State’s Open Meeting law.

According to its members, the group is an “informal” group of citizens with “no authority” that just happens to be meeting regularly to hash around Town-School consolidation instead of, say, talking about the Red Sox or Jon & Kate Plus 8.  From what I’ve been told, though, it is much more formal than that: there have been presentations from town officials including Pat Brusch, Town Administrator Tom Younger, School Department IT director Steve Mazzola as well as the heads of the various Town Departments to solicit their input about changes to the Town’s government.

More recently, the group adopted recommendations which were drafted in the form of a “Consolidation Memo,” dated June 15, 2009, that is addressed to the Board of Selectmen, Warren Committee, School Committee and Capital Budget Committee. Check out the Blip.TV video of the meeting where the memo was introduced above – the discussion starts at around 19:20. The same memo has been presented to the Board of Selectmen and is due to be presented to School Committee for similar approval in the coming weeks, as I assume it will to the Capital Budget Committee. I don’t know whether the BOS has voted on its recommendations.

According to the memo, the Officers Group took its queue from an August 27, 1993 report of the Consolidation Committee. Among other things, it recommends the Town adopt a number of proposals, including

  1. The use of a single legal counsel to handle labor contract matters for both the School and Town. (Currently, both Town and School maintain their own counsel for bargaining labor contracts with the town’s various unions.)
  2. That the Selectmen and School Committee, together with labor counsel, agree to meet annually in September in joint executive session to discuss collective bargaining strategy for the upcoming year.
  3. That the Selectmen and School Committee establish a new, consolidated position to coordinate all maintenance and custodial functions for all public buildings in Belmont. The group recommended that the position be added to the duties of the Director of Public Works, who would have greater responsibilities and report jointly to the Town Administrator and the School Superintendent. His or her duties would include maintenance (major and minor), custodial services and supplies, capital projects (i.e. roof replacement and HVAC, etc., budget (for facilities and maintenance) and collective bargaining with a consolidated collective bargaining unit representing unionized town employees performing jobs covered under the new, consolidated DPW.

These sound like common sense proposals, and they could be the right ones to adopt.  But they would actually be major changes to the Town’s operations with unknown consequences. If it is decided, for example, that the Town’s counsel is the point for labor negotiations with the various school unions, would that undermine the independence of the School Committee and School Department and School Administration? Would a consolidated custodial and maintenance function — or any of these proposed recommendations — actually save Belmont money? That question was asked at the WC meeting and the answer was, frankly, “We don’t know.” Mrs. Rittenburg noted that they would create the “perception of efficiency,” which would presumably smooth the hackles of Town voters who are convinced there’s untrammeled waste and abuse at Town Hall and in the School Department.

As I see it, these changes are big enough that they beg for a proper subcommittee that meets in public, allowing community involvement and oversight during the deliberative process. I’ve expressed a concern to my Chair that proposals, once hammered out and foist upon busy committees, tend to get adopted whole cloth, rather than dug into. And that’s exactly what happened at the Warrant Committee meeting last week. The discussion, such as it was, revolved around the ideas in the Memo and the framework they established, rather than other ideas out there from previous reports on consolidation or from members (and stakeholders) from the larger Belmont community. All the items from the Memo were approved and nobody suggested throwing the ideas out and starting over because…well…that type of think very rarely happens.

That’s one of the reasons why, in Massachusetts, public officials aren’t allowed to cook up policy outside of the public eye…and that’s what the Open Meeting law is all about. It’s an open question whether this group is a government body. But, just looking at it, the group looks an awful lot like a subcommittee to me and, in fact, notes that it modeled its work on the work of an earlier subcommittee. The membership was predetermined and not open to the public. Meetings appear to have been pre arranged and regularly attended by the constituent members. Yes, the Open Meeting Law does allow for “chance meetings” or “social meetings at which matters relating to official business are discussed so long as no final agreement is reached” — think “cocktail party.”

These may be great ideas and arrived at with the best of intentions, but I’m not alone in saying that something — in fact, a lot of things — don’t smell right here at all. The truth is that Belmont has a long and unfortunate history of opaque governance. No less than Selectman Angelo Firenze commented on it when I interviewed him almost two years ago — about how the Town used to be run by the small group of entrenched politicians like James Watson Flett, who served as Selectman for four decades. About how a “Citizens’ Committee” would pick favored candidates and shut out challengers (and their ideas). A lot has changed since then…and that change has been good for Belmont. Throwing the windows open on deliberations and decisions that are made is good and that’s what the Open Meeting Laws are about. With so many big challenges before us, now is not the time to start sliding back.